Chaos at the Guggenheim: A Flawed View of Classicism

by James F. Cooper

On my desk are two volumes. The first is The Oxford History of Classical Art, edited by Sir John Boardman, professor of ancient history at the Royal Academy of Arts and professor emeritus at Oxford University. The second volume is Chaos and Classicism, written by Kenneth E. Silver, professor of modern art, New York University, with an introduction by Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Museum. Chaos and Classicism is a handsome, glossy, full-color catalogue for the huge retrospective at the Guggenheim. The exhibition chronicles the questionable classical “renaissance” which followed World War I (1918), the rapacious Treaty of Versailles, which precipitated the rise of Nazi Germany, and the stupendous Olympiad of 1936 staged by Adolph Hitler, his two ministers, Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels, and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. An odd subject, considering the briefness of the period, less than twenty years. Artistic failure is displayed on almost every page of the catalogue. More egregiously, the curators’ heavily loaded text undermines the universal nature of classicism by twisting its aesthetic order to link it to the Nazi holocaust and fifty million deaths. While this specious argument needs to be addressed, the most obvious problem with the exhibition is the absence of quality in the many curated works masquerading as “classical,” classically influenced or neoclassical.

The objective of the retrospective, explains the curator in the press handbook, is to examine the “powerful desire for regenerative order and classical beauty…following the chaos and horrific destruction of World War I.” “Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918−1936” (October 1, 2010–January 9, 2011) examines the “aesthetics” of the “chillingly contrived biological classicism, or Aryanism, of nascent Nazi society…and the politicized revival of the Roman Empire under Benito Mussolini.” The first thing that is apparent going through the Guggenheim exhibition is the absence of true classical forms. Yes, the paintings and sculptures are full of allusions to Western classicism. But the tone, iconology and formal aesthetics are not classical in a tectonic or sensorial way. They are ironic and perverse. Anyone with an eye can make the distinction between true classicism and this forerunner of what will eventually become postmodern kitsch.

This enthusiasm for the period, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter observes, “will mystify the public,” yet he finds the exhibition “totally engrossing….a piece of investigative history with a bomb ticking away inside.” The bomb is classicism, “with its emphasis on order, purity and exclusion [that] was being espoused by rising political figures intent on creating a new, lethally exclusionary social order.” Cotter means, of course, the Nazis and fascists. No one in his right mind should mistake the misshapen works created by the Third Reich for true classicism. Classicism, as Sir Kenneth Clark once noted, implies a canon of widely accepted ideal forms in all the arts. What could be more vulgar than the gigantic statues of Hitler’s favorite sculptors, Arno Breker and Georg Kolbe?

So why the interest? Even Cotter acknowledges the “chilling, brutish” quality of the German works in the exhibit. The majority of works displayed are by French and Italian artists, I suspect, to give credence to the idea that classicism as an ideology was a legitimate cultural influence between the wars. Picasso and de Chirico are clearly the stars of the show. But, with the exception of Picasso’s beautiful portrait Olga (1923), even works by these masters appear awkward.

Giorgio de Chirico, Gladiators at Rest (Gladiateurs au repos), 1928–29 Collection Gian Enzo Sperone, Switzerland © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /SIAE, Rome

Most of the artists have been forgotten, and deservedly so. But some are very famous, like the modernist genius Giorgio de Chirico. His early dreamlike paintings of ancient classical architecture and sculpture—with a solitary figure casting an elongated shadow across an ancient piazza, a train frozen in motion in the distant horizon seen through a monumental arch with a large clock—haunt the imagination. His melancholy images of a lost arcadia have become significant icons of early twentieth-century modernist alienation. His early masterpieces are as perfectly composed as a Vermeer interior. But none of these masterpieces are included in this exhibit, although some of his surreal works created after 1918 could clearly qualify. Instead, works from his so-called Mussolini period of the 1920s and 30s are prominently featured. The mural-sized Gladiators at Rest (1928–29) was commissioned by the important art dealer Léonce Rosenberg, a fervent supporter of Mussolini, who instructed de Chirico to concentrate on ancient Roman themes and avoid his iconic metaphysical and abstract subjects. 

Whether de Chirico intended to make a mockery of the classical tradition, or he was deadly serious about the new course he would suddenly embark upon during the next forty years, he produced hundreds of ugly, corpulent works that mock the classical tradition. Indeed, he is often referred to as the godfather of postmodern art. One thing is clear, or should be to anyone studying Gladiators at Rest: it is not classical in formal or thematic terms. It is an anti-classical spoof, comparable to Duchamp painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa or exhibiting a urinal, signed R. Mutt. It’s possible that de Chirico’s reaction to his rejection by the organization of surrealists led by André Breton in Paris initiated this dramatic break. More likely, he had anticipated Duchamp’s “end of art.” In hindsight, however, the works of Breton and his followers look academic compared with the powerful works of the greatest surrealist of the twentieth century. De Chirico was well aware of his accomplishments. He simply turned his back on them and joined the braying herd. There is no indication in Gladiators at Rest of the “poetic dream of antiquity” that Professor Silver professes to see.

The problem was not confined to fascist states. The brainwashing inflicted upon de Chirico reminds the reader of the ordeals of the Suprematist artist Kasimir Malevich, who endured communist indoctrination under the regimes of Lenin and Stalin. He was forced to paint idealized scenes of tractors and happy Ukrainian peasants during harvest. Malevich’s gallery dealer was assassinated by cultural commissars the same year de Chirico painted Gladiators at Rest.

The stated objective of the Guggenheim retrospective is to examine “the powerful desire for regenerative order and classical beauty” as a healing balm to the chaos and destruction of World War I. But these works of art are not ordered, or classical or beautiful. Compare the reproductions in Boardman’s Classical Art with the cartoonish parodies from the Guggenheim catalogue. There is nothing in the Guggenheim exhibit to compare with the Laocoön (Vatican Museum), the Metopes from the Parthenon (British Museum), the Altar of Zeus, Pergamum, Hermes by Praxiteles. Boardman’s book covers only the ancient world, omitting Michelangelo, Bernini and Canova. The scholarship and tone of these two books couldn’t be more different. Indeed, the language of the Guggenheim catalogue is so harsh and condemnatory in its political autopsy of classicism, it is difficult not to respond in the same trenchant language. For what is at stake here is not just a benign scholarly examination of some short-lived Western art style, but a disturbing indictment of a long, vital classical tradition, which inspired, among myriad others, Jefferson, Washington and the nineteenth-century City Beautiful movement, which gave America its greatest architectural accomplishments.

“Chaos and Classicism” stacks the deck by spotlighting brutal fascist works such as George Kolbe’s Young Warrior (1935) and Adolph Ziegler’s chilling The Four Elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Air (1937), a sterile triptych of four nude Aryan maidens frozen in lifeless classical poses. This macabre work, identified in the catalogue as Hitler’s “favorite” painting, hung above the mantelpiece in his private apartment. History is more complex than this exhibition lets on, however.In fact, Hitler’s favorite painting was Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead (1880). There is no mention in the catalogue that Hitler acquired an 1883 version of this classical Romantic masterpiece soon after he became chancellor. The painting inspired Sergei Rachmaninoff ’s symphonic elegy of the same name. Surprisingly, Germany’s most popular Nazi sculptor, Arno Breker, is not included in the exhibition or catalogue. If the Guggenheim’s aim was a scholarly evaluation of the future influence of classicism upon the combatants of World War II, it should have included an objective reference to the classical masterpieces produced by the academies of the prewar period (1870–1920). Unacknowledged here are the great sculpture and architecture of the Victorian age, the Beaux-Arts of the French Academy, the powerful classical mythology of German Romanticism.

Antonio Donghi  Circus (Circo equestre), 1927  Collection of Gerolamo and  Roberta Etro, Milan Courtesy Guggenheim Museum,  New York City Romantic classicism in Germany was more advanced than in France or England during the nineteenth century. Germany didn’t become a unified nation until 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War. German artists and poets were inspired by a passionate longing for unification and a national culture of their own. Sublime images of nature were often used as metaphors for their longing. We see something similar in the landscape iconology employed by artists of another new nation seeking a manifest destiny, the United States. Unlike the American Hudson River School and the Luminists, who relied almost completely on transcendental scenes drawn from nature, German artists frequently emphasized the human figure, drawing on tales of Nordic mythology. Many German artists were drawn to Italy by its strong classical and Christian traditions. The Nazarene artists focused primarily on Christian themes, while the Romantics used classical architecture as the backdrop for Nordic mythology and nationalism. By the time American artists such as Thomas Cole, Jasper Cropsey, Asher B. Durand and Frederick Church arrived in Italy, the Nazarenes, wearing monkish garb, had already converted an ancient monastery outside Rome into a major arts academy. German artists such as Anselm Feuerbach, Caspar D avid Friedrich, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Arnold Böcklin and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld shared dreams for a future nation. Their vision contrasts strongly with French and English fantasies of a halcyon past for their dying empires. These two dream worlds collided on the battlefields of Verdun and Flanders.

Classicism is not the instigator of imperialistic ambitions and bloodlust. Classicism is the most elevated language of human beings. The subsequent corruption of classical expression, employed by French, German and Italian artists in the post-war years, reflects the decline of Western civilization anticipated by Nietzsche, Spengler and T.S. Eliot. “Chaos and Classicism” does not reflect the classical spirit, a return to order, a recoil from the chaos of modernity or an attempt to heal war-torn Europe. It acknowledges what, consciously or unconsciously, artists and poets knew, that Europe had lost its last chance to resolve its internal problems. Modernism was about loss: loss of faith, loss of confidence in the nation, loss of God. 

“Chaos and Classicism” builds on a flawed premise. On the one hand, it purports to explore the healing influence of classicism on a world torn apart by world war; at the same time, it offers as evidence toxic parodies of classicism as if they were the real goods. The duplicity would be immediately apparent if the curators had included examples of true classicism. A sampling of traditional works of the nineteenth-century Academy (already in decline) would unmask the faux-classicism of this new exhibition.

There was a more objective examination of the same subject in the 1990 retrospective “On Classic Ground: Picasso, Léger, de Chirico and the New Classicism,” at the Tate Museum in London. That show included important classicists such as Bouguereau (The Birth of Venus, 1879) and argued, with some justification, that other pompiers, such as Gérôme and Cabanel, might have faltered in the classical tradition. “Chaos and Classisicm” offers a sleight-of-hand trick, identifying the classical tradition as dangerous, yet not daring to offer the public a glimpse of true classical works, lest they fall in love with their charm, beauty and spiritual civitas. Classicism might be admired for its aesthetic quality, but it must be loathed for its dangerous political implications. The visitor may begin looking at the exhibition encouraged by the benign promise that classicism is good and will help heal the world. But this darker vision of classicism betrays its utopian promise in the increasing influence of fascist artists. The 1936 Olympics presented an opportunity for Hitler to create a total cultural package for his dark dream, to link Periclean Athens with Hitler’s Berlin. In preparation, German sculptors, artists and architects were recruited to fashion a modern Parthenon, reflecting the paganism and spectacle of a new order based on Nordic mythology. Albert Speer had already designed a model along classical lines for a new imperial Berlin that would dwarf the capital of any previous empire, with Hitler’s approval and active cooperation. Both men had studied architecture, although Hitler’s education was not formal. The problem was its gargantuan proportions, which were meant to terrify and overwhelm the visitor with its coldness and naked embrace of power. Hitler’s office would be larger than the Parthenon in Athens.

One of the few exceptions to the lack of aesthetic quality during the Nazi regime is the cinema of Leni Riefenstahl. Whatever her politics, she was truly inspired by classicism, and often had clashes with Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, and the generals of the Wehrmacht, who were particularly insensitive to any artistic considerations that diminished their sense of importance. Riefenstahl’s cinema exegesis Triumph of the Will (1934) begins with Hitler’s special plane slowly descending through a sea of thick white clouds, with the spires and gables of Nuremberg looming through, accompanied by the music of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, which slowly builds to a crescendo of the composer’s Gotterdammerung. Every piece of film—shot, framed, edited and scored as carefully as a film by Alfred Hitchcock—is focused on one purpose: to create a mythology about its central figure and his relationship with the people. The film’s release won worldwide attention and honors, which led to Riefenstahl’s next commission, Olympia (1936–38). The film begins with a dreamy, classicizing prologue, with views of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and the Acropolis in Athens, featuring Greek and Roman sculpture, coming to rest on the Discobolos, which comes miraculously to life as German decathlon competitor Erwin Huber. Unfortunately, the Guggenheim omits showing either film in its auditorium, once again denying the public a chance to evaluate the complexities of the period.

The Guggenheim exhibition begins with a “poetic, mythic idea,” illustrated with Parisian avant-garde works of Picasso, Léger and Jean Cocteau; shifts to the political, historical idea of a revived Roman Empire, under Mussolini; and reaches its climax in the chillingly biological Aryanism of Nazi Germany. At each level, one is confronted with an increasingly inhuman pseudo-classicism, lacking in grace, harmony and proportion.

Clearly, a review of classicism as an aesthetic and moral force is not the objective here, nor is an analysis of the corruption of the ideal. Rather, the show uses classicism to attack a political idea of empire-building and racial superiority. For the humiliated, disenfranchised German people of the 1920s and 30s—precipitated in great part by the Versailles Treaty and Woodrow Wilson’s duplicity or naïveté (take your choice)—only the longing for renewal and revenge mattered. No one can take this art seriously, certainly not from a nation which, only a few decades earlier, had rivaled in culture, music, art, poetry, science and philosophy other Western nations.

The period that separated the two great wars is a fascinating one; those who lived through it are sometimes called the Lost Generation. It was a time of internecine wars, empires crumbling, famine, economic chaos, a loss of direction, a decline in hope for the future, a dark cloud of endless wars on the horizon—a period, in short, not unlike our own. The Tate exhibition “On Classic Ground” was far more objective in its analysis of the waning power of traditional academic classicism by the beginning of the twentieth century, and its brief revival in the post-war period. Although the classical tradition no longer had the weight of absolute authority, it would be wrong to assume that the early modernists rejected its principles. It is no accident that almost every great modernist artist trained in the academic classical tradition. It is through such training that one enters the world of art—becomes aware of its formal elements and tools—and is able to explore a creative path of expression. 

True classicism is inclusive rather than authoritarian, one of the reasons for its longevity in many different civilizations. The postmodern spirit of “Chaos and Classicism” seems outmoded, rather than decisive. The pseudoclassicism of this show is an aberration, a perverse interlude in the long history of classicism as a perennial style that has been reinterpreted and renewed in honorable and dynamic ways many times throughout history.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10128. Telephone (212) 423-3500. On the web at


American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2011, Volume 28, Number 1